By Arthur O’Sullivan
Rejoice! For spring is supposedly upon us, dear reader! In principle, the weather should be warming and the flowers should be blooming. After a harsh winter, our climate should be fairer. But my friend, we’re at Binghamton University (a premier public ivy, you know). Here a warm, sunny day is as rare as a bad article in Binghamton Review.
Speaking of which, I had intended to cover Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, before realizing that I could not get past a paragraph of thought. All I saw was the highest chamber of Congress engaging in meretricious politicking before the cameras (unheard of, I know). Republicans posed unfair and irrelevant questions and accusations (see Graham’s attempt to replicate his iconic Kavanaugh speech or Greene’s “pro-pedophile” label). Democrats countered with absurd softballs and apologetics. Jackson assiduously avoided answering all of them. Three Republicans decided to support her confirmation, furthering the forgone conclusion of the proceedings. The decision stoked a familiar and tiresome outrage among the “new right,” further driving a wedge within the GOP. The phrase plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose comes to mind: a liberal justice will join an irrevocably politicized Supreme Court, the 6-3 (ostensibly) conservative majority will remain intact, Republicans will still be split along MAGA lines, and few voters will change their habits over this needless spectacle.
This story is almost as dreary as today’s weather. For that reason, I have decided to abandon it in favor of something cozier.
The title of this article says it all. I’m not typically a fan of most fantasy work (though I do have a soft spot for The Elder Scrolls and the Eragon books from my childhood). It’s all too predictable to me: magic is written without mystery, the plot and story-structure tend to feel nihilistic and self-gratifying, and I find the tired formula of elves, dwarves, goblins, and wizards to be schlocky and derivative. The idea that “fantasy” itself could be derivative shows just how oxymoronic the genre has become. One could ask, however, of what “fantasy” is derived. The answer, of course, is
C.S. Lewis J.R.R. Tolkien. Unlike other kids my age, I didn’t watch the Lord of the Rings movies until I was a teenager in about ninth grade, after I had read the books, though I did read The Hobbit as a kid. I also have not, nor will I ever, read The Silmarillion—not out of prejudice against reading it, but out of fear of those who have. Therefore I am not blinded by particular nostalgia, the same way I might be for the Harry Potter or Percy Jackson series, when I read or discuss Tolkien’s work.
J.R.R. Tolkien (TuckerFTW, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)
In contrast to other fantasy work, Tolkien’s writing fails to suffer from the issues I describe: elves, wizards and their magic truly feel ancient and mysterious, sentiments of hope and mercy extend beyond platitudinous lip-service, and Middle-Earth is as vivid and rich with history and culture as befits the expansive story that Tolkien tells. Reading Tolkien illustrates the potential of fantasy, derived from a deep understanding of language, cultural mythology, and the human condition. Despite so much of the genre being derivative of his work, Tolkien is still utterly unique in literature. The most unique and puzzling part of his world, and the telos of this unnecessarily-long preamble, is a small but significant character near the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, Tom Bombadil.
Those who have only seen the movies (and who are still reading this pretentious, convoluted article) would be justified in saying, “Who? What’s going on? Arthur, why are you forcing me to read this?” To which I would laugh with the smug superiority of one who has read the books and can, as the movie is playing, say “AKSHSUALLY, in the book it happens differently.” I would then didactically describe the plot in excruciating detail, before pontificating on Tom Bombadil’s manifold symbolic meanings. But I would never do that to you, dear reader, now would I?
So anyways, a little less than halfway through Book I of The Fellowship of the Ring, our intrepid hobbits, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, have set out on a dangerous mission to the elf safehouse of Rivendell. At their then-lowest point, they find themselves trudging through the rough wilderness far from any comfort of home, being pursued by horse-riding agents of the villainous Sauron. The narrative stakes couldn’t be higher, and then, out of nowhere, they find themselves being eaten by a carnivorous willow tree. In a desperate attempt to save his friends, Frodo accosts a lone traveler on the road, begging for his help. “Who is this guy?” you may ask. It is none other than Tom Bombadil, singing his signature song,
“Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dol dillo!
Ring a dong! hop along! fal lal the willow!
Tom Bom, jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo!”
In an instant, Tom saves the hobbits from the “Old Willow Man” and, in case the plot hasn’t been derailed enough, invites them over to his place for dinner with his beautiful wife Goldberry. Multiple times he refers to himself in some way as the “master of the forest,” and that nothing evil could capture the hobbits without him knowing about it. He is also apparently immune to the tempting influence of the ring (of which Sauron is the lord, hence the title of the novel). After staying at Tom’s house for the night, our hobbits are again captured. There Frodo again calls for Tom’s help, and again Tom comes to help, before accompanying them out of his forest, and the normal plot resumes, and old Tom Bombadil is scarcely mentioned again.
Tom Bombadil (Harry Tworth, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)
Upon reading this, your average modern editor (or fantasy author for that matter) might have an aneurysm. Tolkien took the narrative tension he spent so much time building, and discarded it in order to insert a character from one of his previous works. “What did he mean by this?!” cry today’s “fantasy aficionados,” the cheeto dust billowing from their keyboards as they furiously opine on message boards. Few, however, have the nerve to actively dislike jolly Tom. There is simply something about his ineffable charm that appeals to everyone, nonsensical as it is. For that reason I contend that Tolkien (mostly) knew what he was doing when writing this section, and that its inclusion reveals a greater truth about his philosophy of nature, one that is relevant to our political climate today.
Most would say that political conservatism and environmentalism mix as well as oil and water (or this article and a coherent point). But while that statement holds true for mainstream modern environmentalism, it’s a mistake to say that conservatism itself lacks an environmental vision. The values and areas of focus, however, are different from the typical left-wing environmentalist view. Whereas most contemporary environmentalists concern themselves with global issues such as “climate change,” “green energy,” and “sustainability,” this more obscure conservative environmentalism is much more concerned with local issues such as “pollution,” “beauty,” and “peace.”
This conservative environmentalism is embodied in Tom Bombadil, the master of his forest, wholly unconcerned about what goes on beyond its borders. Tom Bombadil simply exists, untroubled by the greater problems of the world, spending his eons enjoying the basic pleasures of nature, while still keeping a home, a wife and good food. Even his enemies can be abated with a jolly song, and he makes fast friends with anyone he meets. In short, Tom Bombadil is the archetypal dad’s dream. That is conservative environmentalism, a bucolic pipedream, borne of the halfling’s leaf.
Many English scholars have already pontificated on Tolkien’s apparent environmentalism, citing Saruman’s (the fallen lucifer-type wizard) industrialization of the surrounding forest, causing his downfall at the hands of a bunch of sentient (non-carnivorous) trees. Still, like with many of today’s issues, they find it difficult to place Tolkien in a box. But in taking the view of Tom Bombadil being man’s ideal relationship to nature, everything falls into place.
This notion of conservative environmentalism is not some isolated construction of a crackpot with a thesaurus. In the third presidential debate between Old Man Trump and Old Man Biden, the ever-expanding topic of “climate change” came up. Joe delivered the Democratic party line on the issue (you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, they say). Trump’s approach was interesting, however. While Biden appealed to temperature statistics, organizations, and treaties, Trump appealed to a more folksy “America the Beautiful” vision, speaking of ensuring “immaculate” air and water, while completely avoiding the topics of his opponent. The word “immaculate” (literally, “without fault”) is meaningful, hearkening to Nixon’s founding of the EPA. The world of these conservative types, at least the one they articulate before the cameras, is the world of Tom Bombadil.
This is hardly an academic article (though with even more buzzwords and unnecessary citations, I could probably get it published). It is more so a loose collection of rambling thoughts slapped together on this issue’s production night. It is beyond me to give my full opinion on this conservative environmentalism I describe (in short, I believe both it and mainstream environmentalism are somewhat naïve in their goals, but have merit at their cores). Perhaps the two can be reconciled, and the synthesis will produce immaculate air and sunny spring weather for all. Just know that Tom Bombadil will leap and laugh all the way there…
“Tom’s country ends here: he will not pass the borders.
Tom has his house to mind, and Goldberry is waiting!”